In the early days of motorsport sponsorship, one iconic Formula One team rolled out a sleek black and gold masterpiece that may be the finest example of racecar livery ever created.
I was 15 years old when I first experienced the all-out assault on your senses that was a Formula One motor race. In the 1970s, screaming Ford V-8s, and ear-piercing 12-cylinder Ferrari engines provided a thrilling musical score for the breathtaking spectacle of blurred and gleaming Grand Prix racecars at speed. They seemed to defy the laws of physics as their fearless pilots snaked their racing machines in anger around the track at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. Combined with the glowing fall foliage that framed the historic racetrack, it was complete and overwhelming sensual overload.
Ronnie Peterson races his JPS Lotus 72 to victory against an explosion of New York fall color. Photo: motorsportimages.com
I was with my dad, who was just as enthralled with the experience as I was. It was a milestone event for us, and until he passed away a couple years ago, we would always look back at that October weekend as perhaps the most significant time we ever spent together. A father-son bonding experience that instilled a lifelong love for fast, dangerous and yes, beautiful racing cars.
But of all the brightly colored competitors we watched that weekend, the ones that stood out most among them all were a duo of tobacco-sponsored black beauties that embodied design in its most elegant simplicity. They were sponsored by the Imperial Tobacco company who had approached Lotus Racing, a British team run by legendary car designer Colin Chapman, with a proposal to name his F1 racecars “John Player Specials”, after a new cigaratte brand designed specifically for the team. This was partly because that name sounded like the name of a racing prototype, but was also as a hedge against the oncoming wave of anti-tobacco advertising regulations. With the cars actually named “John Player Specials,” Imperial could sidestep the tobacco bans that would be encountered in a growing number of countries hosting Grand Prix races throughout the world.
It was smart marketing for sure, but an even more remarkable product of the partnership would be the sublime design elements and colors that graced the new and sleek Lotus Formula One racecar.
The ground-breaking 1972 championship-winning JPS Lotus 72. Photo: Motorsport Magazine
The choice of an overall high-gloss black paint as the base color of the car was contrasted with elegant gold trim, lettering, and logos. The choice of font was classic, and the three-letter “JPS” lettermark was tastefully designed. Perfect minimal use of the gold accent (even including gold wheel rims) created a Lotus Magnum Opus featuring an attention to detail that was simply magnificent.
The classically-designed JPS lettermark
The cars were driven by a pair of legendary F1 aces – Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi and SuperSwede Ronnie Peterson. On the track, the John Player Specials knifed through the air like bullets and flicked through the curves like ballet dancers. On sunny days, the high-gloss black cars took on a deep blue color as they mirrored the azure skies. On cloudy days, the visibility and contrast of the gold logos and pinstriping against the more muted black were somehow optimized. They were a captivating example of genius by design.
Ronnie Peterson pilots a sun-soaked JPS Lotus. Photo: Rainier Schlegelmilch
Even the few mandatory support sponsor decals were converted to gold; Texaco fuel allowing its traditional red badge logo to instead be displayed in JPS gold. The only break from the color palette featured a tastefully rendered Union Jack symbol as a nod to the team’s home country.
Under the JPS banner, the Player-Lotus partnership lasted on and off from 1972-1986, winning two Formula One World Driving Championships (Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972 and American Mario Andretti in 1978). Andretti’s title-winning JPS Lotus 78 and 79 beauties were nearly as stunning as the 72 model, and carried America’s last World Champion through a magical and tragic 1978 season.
Mario Andretti in the JPS Lotus 78 at the 1977 Long Beach Grand Prix where he won in front of a home crowd.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, John Player expanded its marketing program to include sponsorship of motorcycles, Australian Touring Cars, and even powerboats. They finally ended their trailblazing Formula One sponsorship run at the end of the 1986 season during which they celebrated their final F1 victory at the hands of legendary three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna in the Detroit Grand Prix.
With the extreme financial demands in modern motorsport sponsorship, dollars are applied to just about every square inch of available racing real estate. And technical advancements in aerodynamics have produced multi-wing, multi-flap, multi-panel racecar bodies that rarely have smooth, flat surface areas available for simple liveries. Which sadly means the days of spectacular and sublime works of art like the JPS Lotus 72 are gone for good. But for me at least, the memories will last forever.
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